Reflections on Actors: British Actors in Contemporary US Film and Television
Simone Knox / University of Reading
Even an idle glance at the credits of contemporary US film and television drama reveals a considerable presence of British actors: on television, Dominic West and Idris Elba in The Wire (2002-2008), David Harewood and Damian Lewis in Homeland (2011-present), Hugh Laurie in House M.D. (2004-2012), Jamie Bamber in Battlestar Galactica (2004-2009), Andrew Lincoln in The Walking Dead (2010-present), Jennifer Ehle in A Gifted Man (2011-2012), and Kit Harington et al. in Game of Thrones (2011-present); and on the big screen, Andrew Garfield in The Amazing Spider-Man (2012), Henry Cavill in Man of Steel (2013), and Christian Bale in Batman Begins (2005), The Dark Knight (2008) and The Dark Knight Rises (2012). The list is long, intriguing and deserves critical attention.
There are two caveats worth making: One, such transatlantic appearances by British actors are, of course, nothing new. The US creative industry has long made use of British (and continental European) acting and production talent, and this has deservedly received scholarly attention (see, for example, Babington1 and Phillips and Vincendeau2). And two, this long-standing presence of foreign talent in Hollywood, to some extent at least, problematizes the very notion of “US film” and “US television.” As Alastair Phillips and Ginette Vincendeau note, given Hollywood’s increasing dependence on subcontracted multinational companies and globalized production, “it has become increasingly difficult to define what a ‘Hollywood film’ actually is.”3 With a significant move towards a global television market, rise of co-productions and format trade, such complexity of terminology also applies to what we commonly understand as “US television.” And of course, the Britishness of “British actors” is far from straightforward, fixed and homogenous, and indeed, through their move West-wards, subject to becoming more fluid and hyphenated.
While the recent casting of British actors for US film and television is part of a long-standing history, there does seem to be a distinguishable wave here; for here we have a significant enough number of British actors cast for often high-profile roles in major US productions, whereby they mostly play US characters – and often (albeit darkly) heroic US characters at that, including the cop, the soldier, the sheriff, the doctor and the superhero. There is much to be said about this, and I shall here focus on a few points driven by an institutional and industrial perspective that is interested in the working environment of British professional actors.
As Trevor Rawlins has argued, with the decline of repertory theatre, television has become the main employer for actors in Britain.4 Here, with the rise of light entertainment and (structured) reality formats, the number of original drama productions has decreased in recent decades. Not only are there fewer dramatic roles, but there is also more competition for them since the British actor union Equity was forced to discontinue as a closed shop in the 1990s. Simultaneously, the history, glamour and status of Hollywood have always held an attraction for British actors, tempting them with assumed economic and profile-raising benefits. And with US television drama’s shift of recent years towards discourses of quality, the prospect of a dramatic role in an acclaimed production by the likes of HBO has certainly only furthered this attraction, and done much to resolve traditional hesitations about working for the medium of television.
As British actors have been auditioning for US characters, this also side-steps concerns about getting cast in established British stereotypes. Phillips and Vincendeau as well as Andrew Spicer5 have discussed how, in its portrayals of British identities, Hollywood has traditionally relied on certain stereotypes, including the suave gentleman, the tribal elder (certainly drawn upon for the Ian McKellen/Patrick Stewart combo in the X-Men franchise), the bumbling fool, and the well-spoken villain, with British actors often playing British sidekicks to the US heroic lead. Phillips and Vincendeau suggest that “[t]he force of such images has meant that actors who wished to escape ‘their’ national typecasting […] found it extremely hard to obtain significant roles.”6 Now, playing US characters, actors like Andrew Lincoln or Henry Cavill get to be not only the lead, but they get to be the hero, with fewer limitations in terms of what their character can necessarily be and do.
Furthermore, these British actors tend to be relatively unknown in the USA at the point of casting. That the quality status of cable shows on HBO and Showtime et cetera is partly constructed around the notion of distinction, of being new, different and fresh is significant here, as the casting of unknown British actors works well in this regard. The latter also helps in terms of realism and verisimilitude, as these actors bring fewer connotations of previous work with them, thus eliding the difference between actor and character. As US viewers watch, for example, a telefantasy show like The Walking Dead, they are unlikely to be distracted by the thought: ‘Oh, it’s Egg riding a horse in the post-apocalypse!’
But of course US screen products aim at global markets, and the casting of This Life’s Andrew Lincoln offers an additional point of interest and entry for British viewers. And, as the recent backlash against the casting of Ben Affleck as Batman has me think, the unknownness of British actors may also be helpful in producers’ efforts to manage promotional, media and audience discourses.
Furthermore, British actors are attractive propositions for US film and television because, whilst they are less well-known and “fresh fare”–and crucially, less expensive–they are also experienced actors, with usually several years worth of acting experience and British actor training behind them. These British actors tend to be regarded as experienced enough to carry a production–this has been helped by Hugh Laurie’s considerable, precedent-setting success, what I want to call “the House effect”–and to cope with the demands of the filming schedule. British acting and British actor training have been held in high regard in the USA for a long time, and British drama schools are often cited as providing actors with a usefully rounded sense of technique and discipline. (Interestingly enough, it is the British training, especially voice work, that helps British actors mask their Britishness in the USA.) Based on the dominant understandings of different acting and actor training traditions across the Atlantic, the traditional binary view that British actors are more suited for the stage and US actors for screen-based work–insightfully discussed by Rawlins–is certainly being challenged by the recent presence and success of British actors’ screen performances in the USA. Hugh Laurie is an interesting case here as he problematizes certain assumptions: He has been very successful as Gregory House (which saw him become the highest-paid actor in US television drama) and praised for his US accent, yet this is not the result of British actor training.
To conclude, Spicer argued in 2006 that British actors’ “extensive contribution to contemporary Hollywood deserves to be more widely recognised than it is.”7 This has proven to be an ongoing process, to which the recent Exploring British Film and Television Stardom conference has provided a welcome contribution; but more work is needed, to explore the full significance of this historically contingent alien presence in US film and television that offers fascinating insights into the lived experience of British and US screen culture.
Please feel free to comment.
- Babington, Bruce (ed). British Stars and Stardom: From Alma Taylor to Sean Connery. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2001. [↩]
- Philips, Alastair and Ginette Vincendeau. “Film Trade, Global Culture and Transnational Cinema: An Introduction.” Alastair Phillips and Ginette Vincendeau (eds). Journeys of Desire: European Actors in Hollywood, A Critical Companion. London: BFI, 2006. 3-18. [↩]
- Philips and Vincendeau 4. [↩]
- Rawlins, Trevor. Studying Acting: An Investigation Into Contemporary Approaches to Professional Actor Training in the UK. Unpublished PhD thesis, University of Reading, 2012. [↩]
- Spicer, Andrew. ‘Acting Nasty?: British Male Actors in Contemporary Hollywood. Alastair Phillips and Ginette Vincendeau (eds). Journeys of Desire: European Actors in Hollywood, A Critical Companion. London: BFI, 2006. 141-148. [↩]
- Philips and Vincendeau 13-14. [↩]
- Spicer 146. [↩]